Thanks mostly to the man, they had found their way back to the switchback staircase and climbed for what seemed like a long time. Binny complained that there weren’t any elevators. The man said he thought he’d seen some escalators, and an old timey elevator, but he wasn’t entirely sure he could find them again, and besides, the exercise was good for them.
“Is it good for us?” Binny said. “I mean in here?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” The man responded.
“Well, I’m not sure if it matters. I mean when I’m inside my book I’m kind of stuck in whatever I’m supposed to do there. And I don’t think anything I do here affects who I am inside.” Binny mused.
“Well. That’s actually a great point. I hadn’t considered that,” The man said.
Binny thought about the little girl and the enormous fire. The fire made the girl’s shadow long, but when Binny had looked back, the girl, her book, and her shadow were gone. What was real? Binny thought of bringing up what she’d seen with the man, but thought better of it. After all, who was he anyway?
When they finally arrived at a floor that seemed like it might be the same floor on which Binny had started her trek, Binny found a collection of comfy looking couches and plopped down.
“Break time?” The man joked.
“I guess. Maybe I’ll read the book for a minute,” Binny said, nestling into the old leather of the couch.
“Well, I’ll see you around,” The man said with a wink, and then he was gone.
Binny waved but she wasn’t sure the man saw as he had already disappeared behind some tall bookcases.
The library was much less full than it had been earlier, but was still more populated than any library Binny had ever seen. The relative tumult was comforting. Binny cracked open her copy of Paris au XXe siècle, or Paris in the Twentieth Century as it looked to Binny, and started to read.
Binny read the last sentence, and closed the book. She’d read the entire thing in one sitting. It didn’t seem like a particularly short book. Binny just felt like she could consume it at a much faster pace than she ever had before. Maybe that was a byproduct of being born in a book, you could read them a whole lot faster.
As Binny stretched, it suddenly occurred to her that it was late. Or at least she thought it was late. Binny wasn’t entirely sure what time it was. Did time even matter in this place? Her growling stomach was another clue. Eating was apparently still important in the Stacks.
Binny tucked the book under her arm, and set out in a direction that looked like it went away from the central ring of the level she was on – away from the hole in the donut as it were. Binny shook her head deciding that donuts were not the metaphor she wanted to use right now given her gnawing hunger.
Binny bounced from aisle to aisle, sometimes poking her head up above a shorter bookcase. She tried to follow some people, but people at this hour in the library were mostly stationary, nose buried in a book or watching movies in small groups on one of the large screens. This felt distinctly like post-dinner time to Binny.
And then, she was there, at a stone archway that led to the outer hallway that ringed the library level. Binny stepped through the archway and heard a tinkling and jingling, as if from a cascade of tiny silver bells.
She wouldn’t have thought much of it, just another oddity of her new surroundings, except that everyone in the hallway had stopped their progress, and all of them were staring right at her.
Binny flushed a deep crimson. She thought for a moment how much she would have loved to find a set of stone stairs in the floor right now so she could slink down them and out of view, but none appeared. So much for things appearing when you needed them, Binny thought.
The purplish-gray image of Two glided between the gawkers until she came to rest directly in front of Binny. At her arrival, the others seemed to take the cue to keep going, but Binny saw them steal glances at her and Two as they slowly departed.
“We missed you at the evening meal,” Two said. Two’s face was indecipherable. Neither friendly nor angry, but her eyes were intense, boring into Binny as she spoke what seemed like carefully chosen words.
Binny felt a pit in her stomach. “I’m sorry about that. I just started reading, and…”
“Getting lost in a book is one of the advantages of being here…”
Two didn’t move, but to Binny it felt like Two had moved her face to within inches of Binny’s.
Two continued. “…but that comes at the price of making sure we do not lose the books themselves.” Two extended a hand.
At first Binny wasn’t sure what Two was doing, and then Binny realized that she’d walked out of The Library with Paris in the Twentieth Century – Michel’s book. It occurred to Binny that this wasn’t a lending library. Normally that thought would have made her laugh, but something about Two’s hovering stern face and outstretched hand stifled any sparks of humor in Binny’s mind.
Binny handed Two the book.
The corners of Two’s mouth turned up ever so slightly as she took the book from Binny. Apparently that constituted a smile for the Keeper. Two examined it for a moment. Binny thought she saw a slight ripples of emotion cross Two’s face. Surprise? Anger? Curiosity? But it disappeared so quickly, Binny decided she must have imagined it. After the brief inspection, Two tucked the book somewhere in her clothing. Binny wasn’t sure where.
Two continued, “I will see it home.”
“I’m really sorry. I didn’t know.” Binny felt her heart beating quickly.
“I leave you, to go the road we all must go. The road I would choose, if only I could, is the other,” Two said. And with that she glided through the arch and into the library, presumably to repair the damage that Binny had caused.
As Two moved, Binny looked up to see Hermione, Arya, and Katniss standing a few feet away.
“How much did you see?” Binny asked.
“Enough,” Katniss snickered.
Hermione shook her head. “Oh, stop.” And then to Binny, “That was my fault. I’m so sorry. I should have warned you about taking books out of the Library.
Katniss stuck her head in the conversation. “They’re not big fans of that.”
“What were you even doing?” Arya asked brusquely.
Binny thought through everything she’d done, and suddenly removing a book from The Library seemed like the least of her transgressions. Should she share how she’d followed the boy Michel? What about seeing the fire and the girl who’d presumably entered it? Maybe her conversation with the strange man with glasses?
“You guys have been so kind, I just wanted to give you a break and do a little exploring on my own. I found a book, and started reading, and before I knew it, it had gotten late.” Binny spoke quickly hoping her story would suffice.
“Was it long?” Katniss looked excited.
“I think about 200 pages?” Binny said, hoping that would impress Katniss.
“Hmmm… Not terrible. You can do even more you know. Reading goes so fast here. One of the best parts of this place. What did you read?”
“Let’s not dally here.” Hermione beckoned them to start walking home to Misselthwaite Manor.
Binny took advantage of Hermione’s interruption to ignore Katniss’ question. Binny wasn’t entirely sure why but she wanted to keep her experience of reading Michel’s book private. At least for now.
But as they walked, she kept thinking about the book. Binny was not exactly a huge reader on the inside. She’d gotten very into the books she enjoyed, but even that was a recent development over the last couple of years. Not like her brother Zach whose nose was always in a book.
But now that she knew (did she know?) that she herself was nothing but the product of a book, books seemed to be unavoidable. Her home came from a book. Her meals came from books. And both her sleeping and dining quarters were situated on the outskirts of an enormous library.
So it wasn’t hugely surprising that early in Michel’s book, he found himself at the Imperial Library in 1961 Paris. Apparently the bookstores in Michel’s universe only carried books on technology and business. But Michel wasn’t interested in those things. He was interested in art. In literature.
It was in this enormous library that Michel met his uncle for the first time. An uncle disgraced by his anachronistic love of literature. Binny had to stop and look up the word anachronistic. It meant when something is from a different era or time. Unsurprisingly, a dictionary was on a nearby shelf when Binny needed it.
Amidst all this bookishness, sitting in an enormous library, reading a book about a character that she’d actually seen, and his search for meaning in a library in his own book – Binny’s head was starting to spin a little from all the different dimensions of her situation. But still, a particular line from the book stuck in her head.
“Literature is dead, my boy,” the uncle replied. “Look at these empty rooms, and these books buried in their dust; no one reads anymore; I am the guardian of a cemetery here, and exhumation is forbidden.” . . . “My boy, never speak of literature, never speak of art! Accept the situation as it is!”
Michel’s uncle in the book had given up. Maybe that’s why Michel seemed so depressed. Binny tuned back into the conversation going on around her.
“And then, they brought out the thick giblet soup. I couldn’t believe it. So so good.” Arya had been waxing poetic about the meal Binny had missed for quite awhile and appeared to be in no danger of stopping.
Binny listened as it became clear that the missed meal had included a lot of animal parts that Binny wasn’t sure were meant to actually be eaten. But instead of grossing her out, Arya’s enthusiastic descriptions just made Binny hungrier.
Binny’s stomach growled so loudly that even Arya had to stop her soliloquy.
Katniss laughed out loud and Hermione let out a giggle.
“I guess it’s not surprising that you’re hungry. You did miss dinner after all,” Hermione said.
“Unfortunately for your sake, dinner has ended,” Katniss added.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t eat dessert,” Arya announced with a sparkle in her eye.
The foursome came to great iron gates. They were set on the inner curve of the great hallway that surrounded the library.
Arya was grinning, like a lunatic, Binny thought.
Even Katniss had a bit of a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
Hermione closed the gates after they’d all gone through. They found themselves at the beginning of a long hallway with pale pink walls.
Binny noticed the difference immediately. She’d spent the last several hours smelling books. Now the air smelled of tall grass sprinkled with vanilla and almond dew drops. They continued down the hallway and the smells changed again. They passed Binny’s nose like cars heading in the opposite direction at rush hour. Roasting coffee, burnt sugar, melting chocolate, mint, violets, and crushed hazelnuts. And then apple blossoms and caramel and lemon peel. Binny head was spinning, sad when each new smell disappeared, but excited a moment later when it was replaced with something new and even more exciting.
“Come on,” Arya shouted. But her pace seemed to indicate that she could care less whether anyone followed. Arya took a series of rights and lefts that Binny was sure she could never replicate. There were no steps, but the hallways kept angling downward. At least that’s how it felt.
And then, abruptly, the hallway ended. Before them was shiny metal door upon which large letters were emblazoned. They spelled out, “THE CHOCOLATE ROOM”.
“She’s gonna fall in.” Binny smiled an impossibly large smile.
Binny, Katniss, and Hermione were lounging in the grass on the shore of the river under a tree.
“Oh no. She’ll jump in before she falls in,” Hermione said with pursed lips. Clearly she wasn’t thrilled at the prospect.
“She’ll jump? But what about the tubes?” Binny was incredulous.
“She’s been through the tubes. What a dozen times?” Katniss looked to Hermione for confirmation.
“Isn’t she worried about getting hurt?” Binny asked.
“Don’t be silly. Nobody gets hurt in here. If you got hurt, you couldn’t go to work,” Katniss said matter-of-factly.
Binny thought of Suzy, the little girl and her book, and the fire.
Hermione added, “Well, that’s not exactly accurate. You can get hurt. You’re just easily repaired.”
“Repaired?” Binny asked, worried that the answer might horrify her.
“Well, think of the chowder we had the other night.” Hermione said.
Binny nodded still not seeing the connection.
Hermione continued. “The book doesn’t describe chowder enough to feed hundreds of thousands, or millions, however many there are of us. The book describes enough to feed the crew of the Pequod. But somehow, we had enough to feed everyone in the Stacks.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Binny said.
Katniss had her way of trying to cut to the chase and this conversation was no exception. “They can make as many copies as they want of anything in the books.”
“Neat.” Binny marveled at the thought of this unlimited bounty. “But what does that have to do with us getting injured.”
Hermione leaned in conspiratorially, “They can make as many copies as they want of anything or anyone in the books.”
“If one of us gets hurt, or dies in here, no big deal. Just print another copy.” Katniss said between bites. She had been alternating between the soft sugary mint of the grass on which they were lying and the ethereal butterscotch of the buttercups that dotted the landscape.
Binny heard a bitterness in Katniss’ voice, but Katniss’s face projected indifference. Binny wasn’t sure which to believe.
“The point is,” Hermione sounded like she wanted to end this particular topic of conversation, “that everything we need is taken care of here. That way we can focus on what’s important.”
“The work you mean?” Binny said, looking contentedly at the sticky remnants of a candy apple she’d picked from one of the trees. It wasn’t an apple coated in a candy shell, it was an entire apple made of candy that tasted like, well apple. It was hard to explain.
“Yes. The work,” Hermione agreed.
“Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life,” Katniss said absent-mindedly.
Arya had returned to their little spot, lying on her back and rubbing her stomach. “I think I ate too much.”
Binny surveyed her surroundings.
On the one hand, Binny’s entire reality was turned upside down. She was living two lives and she had no idea which one mattered. This place had all kinds of rules, new rules that she was learning every day. Often the hard way.
Then there was the matter of Suzy and the fire, not to mention the brooding Michel who was pacing somewhere in the back of her mind. And finally, the man with the glasses. She wasn’t sure at all how he fit in, and despite his assistance, he’d made her feel like she was missing something important.
On the other hand, Binny had an escape from her other life. She belonged to a club. A club of fictional characters that had everything provided for them, and couldn’t even get hurt. They were supplied with unlimited books that they could read at hyper speed not to mention movies and who knew what else. They got to live in a mansion that was pulled quite literally out of one of her favorite books.
Every day in this fantastical place she got to hang out with characters she had idolized from books she had read before she’d even known the Stacks existed. And finally – Binny had to stop herself from making this last observation out loud for fear of sounding like a kid – she was sitting in the middle of the actual Chocolate Room in actual Willy Wonka’s actual chocolate factory. She hadn’t seen Wonka himself yet, but maybe that was for the best. Binny shook her head in disbelief that any of this was possible.
In that moment, Binny decided that maybe being stuck in the Stacks wasn’t such a terrible fate after all.